by Mary Rupert
Mayor Mark Holland brought up his opponent’s vote in favor of a utility rate increase, while challenger David Alvey cited the UG’s unnecessary spending and deferred maintenance during a candidate forum held Tuesday night at Kansas City Kansas Community College.
Holland said there was a 42 percent electric rate increase and a 35 percent water rate increase at the BPU that Alvey voted for while in office at the BPU.
He said electric rates were increased 7 percent a year for four years, followed by a 4 percent increase this year and 4 percent next year.
“We cannot afford to adopt this tax-and-spend model from the Board of Public Utilities for the Unified Government,” Holland said.
Holland said he was able to work with the UG Commission to bring down the property tax rate by 10 percent in the past two years, and it is the lowest rate in the past 50 years. He said the rate would continue to be lowered over time.
Holland also said that under his administration, openness has increased in local government, especially with airing the local meetings on UGTV, and he contrasted it with the BPU, which is not on cable television. Alvey responded that the BPU thought the cost of broadcasting the meetings, about a half-million dollars, was too much.
Holland also said he had conducted 21 forums to receive community response since elected, including forums on how to spend sales tax funds from Village West, as well as on how to reduce violence, and the future of Indian Springs.
Alvey has been a critic of UG spending throughout the campaign. He defended his votes to increase BPU rates.
“That was necessary to make sure the BPU could do what it is supposed to do, and that is to provide reliable power and safe water for our residents,” Alvey said. “We had to do these projects, we had to spend the money, first of all, to take care of our infrastructure.”
When he started on the board of BPU, there was only 19 days’ cash on hand, which was not sustainable, he said, and equipment was so old that it was starting to fall apart. New substations had to be built to meet the growth, he said. The BPU also was required by the federal government to add various pollution control equipment.
“We always put the interests of the ratepayers first,” he said.
Alvey criticized the UG spending money on the mayor’s bodyguard or security detail. The security is available for the elected officials who request it.
“If we’re going to be concerned about excess expenditures, we need to point out that we’ve been spending $250,000 to $300,000 a year on a security detail for the mayor,” Alvey said. “I will not do that.”
There was not a need to spend a million dollars on the ninth floor office remodeling at City Hall, plus a safe room there, Alvey said.
Alvey also criticized the UG’s decision to bury utility lines underground on Leavenworth Road, which cost an extra $5-6 million, instead of putting the utility lines above ground. The funds could have been spent on other needed projects, he said.
“There are plenty of infrastructure requirements throughout the city, that we could have spent $6 million on, burying infrastructure was not our No. 1 priority,” Alvey said. “You could drive anywhere out here and find a $6 million project right outside our door.”
Alvey said he is for clean air, but there needed to be a fiscally sustainable way to do it. A federal rule since rescinded only resulted in improved air quality of one-half of one percent, but cost $250 million, he added.
Alvey said the BPU has the lowest electricity rates in the region, but there are added-on fees on the BPU bill, such as the 11.9 percent PILOT fee from the UG. The PILOT is 50 percent higher than it was four years ago, he said. He is in favor of lowering the PILOT fee, while the UG recently has kept the PILOT fee the same. Alvey said there was a promise to reduce it, and the promise was not kept.
Additionally, Alvey said the UG had to focus on reducing its tax burden, while increasing jobs.
The UG had $500 million in deferred maintenance on 150 UG buildings and facilities, he said. If a real solution is not found to taking care of infrastructure and generating revenue to do it, this county will only decline, Alvey said. Otherwise, “it can’t get any better.”
He said the UG may need to raise the city debt mill levy in 2018-2020, according to the UG financial forecast.
The 2-mill reduction earlier this year was not in the UG’s original plans, he said. UG department heads had been told earlier they would receive their submitted budgets, then they were given only about a day to cut 2.5 percent from their budgets last April, he said. “They cut into the flesh and bone of our departments,” he said.
However, Holland disagreed with the statement about the city debt mill levy, saying they were not correct.
The candidates also discussed the future of downtown.
Holland discussed the plans for the downtown healthy campus, saying it will show people that the UG is willing to invest in the downtown area, and also said the Northeast Master Plan discussion is now making plans for the northeast area.
“Strawberry Hill is going to be the next Crossroads,” Holland said. “Bringing the amenities downtown is going to bring the people.”
He said the Downtown Shareholders are doing a great job, and downtown is clean and safe.
Alvey said businesses may need to be incentivized, but not bailed out, and the downtown needs to be a beautiful and safe place.
“I love the fact that Strawberry Hill is growing,” Alvey said. “But the Crossroads is an area of commercial establishments, warehouses, with room enough for art studios.”
He said comparing the two areas was like comparing apples and oranges.
However, there are areas along Minnesota Avenue that could be developed further as an attraction, like the Crossroads, but it would require bringing residents in, he added. The perception of developers is it’s not well maintained and it’s not safe, he said. If the perception is not changed, it will not bring people in, he said.
Holland said there are some growing businesses downtown.
“Central Avenue is a testament to the power of immigrants coming with an entrepreneurial spirit,” Holland said.
Central Avenue is thriving, he said. Minnesota Avenue also has some new small businesses that have moved there, he said.
“We just need to continue doing that, it just takes time,” Holland said.
“The key to the downtown is having all the community support it, and having amenities down there and attractions down there that people want to come there, attracting people to downtown, not just folks who live there,” Holland said.
Many other topics were discussed at the forum, which will air later on KCKCC’s cable television channel at dates to be determined. This forum was sponsored by Business West, with other neighborhood business groups.
Another candidate forum sponsored by Business West and the neighborhood business groups is planned tonight at KCKCC’s Upper Jewell building, at 6 p.m. Candidates for Kansas City, Kansas, Board of Education and KCKCC Board of Trustees have been invited.
Another candidate forum is planned at 6 p.m. Friday, Oct. 20, at Blessed Sacrament Family Center gym, 2215 Parallel, Kansas City, Kansas. This forum is sponsored by Unity with Purpose and Forum Partners. A fourth forum is at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 24, at New Bethel Church Haven Center, 735 Walker Ave., also sponsored by Unity with Purpose and Forum Partners.
The general election is Nov. 7.